It has often been said of South Africa that the country has a habit of trembling on the edge of catastrophe, only to draw back at the last moment. And so it was last Wednesday 7 July. At 45 minutes to a midnight deadline, with a police column heading for his luxury compound in rural KwaZulu-Natal, Jacob Zuma finally caved in. Black cars sped out of his homestead, so that the former president could hand himself over to the police.
It was a close-run thing. As the author, Mark Gevisser, remarked without exaggeration, it was “the most consequential moment for the rule of law in post-apartheid South Africa”. The police minister had hesitated to enforce a ruling by the Constitutional Court – the highest in the land – that 79-year-old Zuma was to be imprisoned for contempt of court for failing to answer a summons from the Zondo commission of enquiry into corruption.
Day after day during May and June this year, the Zondo commission had laid bare the extraordinary scale of the corruption that had been unleashed during Zuma’s 2009-2018 presidency. Zuma himself faces more than 700 counts of corruption in a separate case that still has to be heard. One estimate put the total cost of what is termed in South Africa as “state capture” by Zuma’s Indian associates, the Guptas, at 57bn rand – or a staggering £2.9bn.
This figure needs to be seen against the scale of the deprivation in the country, where the poor desperately need the resources being plundered by the elite. A third of the population is unemployed, according to official statistics (43.2 per cent if those who have given up looking for work are included). Crushing poverty is accompanied by failing services in smaller towns and villages. As the Auditor General recently pointed out, many local authorities are close to financial collapse. Even in the Gauteng area, including Johannesburg – the economic heartland of the country – there are severe crises. Electricity and water supplies are frequently cut, while ambulance services can barely cope with the rising tide of Covid-19.
There is, however, little surprise that a wave of protest and looting by Zuma’s supporters has spread across KwaZulu-Natal and to Gauteng. Many, particularly among his Zulu compatriots, either owe their positions to the former president, or feel that he is being treated as a scape-goat for the crimes of others.
For President Cyril Ramaphosa – Zuma’s successor as leader of the country and of the African National Congress party – the unrest is a clear challenge to his authority and, on Monday, the army was deployed to control the rioting. At time of writing at least six people have been killed and 200 arrested.
Some of the anger has been the result of a mobilisation of Zuma’s Zulu supporters, who are drawn from South Africa’s largest and most powerful ethnic group, leading Ramaphosa to warn this week of the dangers of tribalism. This allegation goes to the very heart of the ANC, since the party was founded in 1912 precisely to overcome these divisions within the black African community.
The ANC has today come out in support of President Ramaphosa, denying that the riots are “a form of political protest” labelling them as “clearly acts of sheer criminality”.
In recent years the ANC run government has effectively become a machine for milking the state. It is one of the few means that impoverished black South Africans have of gaining wealth. As a result, there are fierce internal battles for key positions, with opposing ANC factions attacking, and sometimes even attempting to kill each other.
President Ramaphosa has been attempting to break the cycle of corruption, but has been hamstrung by his finger-tip grip on the ANC leadership. He was narrowly elected as leader in December 2017 with the support of only three of the six senior officials within the National Executive. The other half were in Zuma’s camp.
Since then Ramaphosa has been cautiously edging towards renewing the systems of accountability, from justice to the police and security forces. This is finally paying off. The jailing of Zuma is evidence that the state is slowly being reformed.
But Ramaphosa would never have been able to do this on his own. The Democratic Alliance, the country’s main opposition party, has played a pivotal role. Their pursuit of Zuma and their insistence that the rule of law be applied, has been relentless. The DA have taken the issue to the courts on no fewer than seven occasions. “There’s no substitute for a strong opposition that uses every platform to drive accountability,” says the DA’s chair, Helen Zille.
The media and civil society have also been critical in revealing the scale of the corruption and Zuma’s alleged role in it. The Mail and the Guardian, Daily Maverick and amaBhungane have all played their part. So too have organisations such as Corruption Watch.
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By arresting Zuma and thereby upholding the supremacy of the Constitutional Court, the country has won a brief reprieve. The rule of law has been maintained and with it the hope that in time the wounds inflicted on society by the ANC, during its more than quarter of a century in power, can be healed.
There was much more at stake than the imprisoning for contempt of court of a 79-year-old pensioner. As the commentator Songezo Zibi put it: “This is a tragic moment in that it shows that after all these years, Zuma and everyone who wants him to be above the law have learnt nothing. As a result they are willing to throw our entire system to the dogs in order to make one person unaccountable.”
Taking on Zuma and his faction has required a united stand by Ramaphosa, the opposition and civil society. It was vital that the most senior judges did not waver. Together they have reinforced the standing of the Constitution and provided a ray of hope for the country and its people. Racism has rendered South African democracy fragile, with tensions between ethnic groups enflamed by the grinding poverty of so many of its citizens. Its youth have grown up since the end of apartheid, but apartheid has thrown a long shadow down the years which continues to blight their lives.
Martin Plaut is a senior research fellow, Kings’ College London and co-author of “Understanding South Africa” with Carien du Plessis, Hurst, 2019.
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